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The Hovering Cycle

A guest post on toilet cleanliness and toilet use by Thomas Levine from thomaslevine.com. Sitting Toilets Western sitting-style toilets are presumably intended to be used in a seated position, (McClelland & Ward, 1982) except when used by males for exclusively urination. A sign on a bathroom in my college dorm illustrates this expectation. But the word on the street is that people often adopt a hovering posture instead of the seated posture in order to cope with unsanitary toilets. To start, several threads on Yelp contain discussion and complaint about toilet cleanliness and preferred postures. Also, one person admitted to PostSecret that he or she hadn’t sat on a toilet for the four years. “I haven’t sat on a toilet seat in over 4 years.” This sparked further discussion on PostSecret forums. There’s even a website that reviews toilets and tells you whether to Sit or Squat. Greed (Greed, 1995) and Moore (Moore & al, 1991) anecdotally found that young ladies are often taught that hovering is proper and that sitting is unclean. Several WikiHow articles provide examples of this phenomenon. Formal quantitative studies have found hovering to be common among Taiwanese people (Cai & You, 1998), British gynecological outpatients (Moore & al, 1991), and American university students. Toilets get dirty, so people hover. The three studies I just mentioned, particularly the third (mine), also suggest that toilet cleanliness affects posture choice, with dirtier toilets encouraging non-sitting postures like hovering that make the toilet dirtier. Many of the referenced forum discussions explain that hovering, rather than sitting, creates more of a mess. Presumably, this is because hovering puts the relevant body parts in a less stable position that is higher above the toilet, making it harder to aim. The discussions and formal studies indicate that people are more likely to hover as toilets get dirtier, in order to avoid touching the dirty toilet. Thus, the clean toilet is an unstable equilibrium of a toilet’s sanitary state; toilets get dirty, so people hover, so the toilets get dirty, so people hover. In other contexts, this cycle is sometimes termed the “broken windows theory”, or the feeling of “maintenance” of a space. Effects of privacy on posture choice. Public toilets tend to be dirtier than private toilets, or people or we may at least be more concerned with sanitation at public toilets than at private toilets, so we might expect that a more public toilet would effect posture similarly to how a more dirty toilet would. On the other hand, privacy might have a secular impact on posture choice. We don’t have a clear idea of whether privacy affects posture choice for reasons other than cleanliness, but here are two things that I think are relevant. First, social norms might have more of an impact in public toilets than in private toilets. A lady once told me that she thought people would be more likely to hover at public toilets because hovering is considered more proper than sitting; since people can see others’ feet and lower legs under the bathroom stalls in public restrooms, people might be more likely to follow this convention of hovering in public than in private. Second, people might trust the cleanliness of toilets more when they know who has been using it. Before I see a private toilet, I generally trust that it is clean enough because only a specific group of people uses it. Because these people know each other, they can shame each other if the toilet gets dirty, so I trust somewhat that they will keep it clean. Also, if I know the people and think that they are reasonably clean, I trust that they would keep the bathroom clean. I do not have the same trust in a public toilet; any manner of anonymous crazy person might have used the toilet without being compelled to keep it clean. Considerations for toilet. Toilets are called “sitting” toilets, but lots of people hover, even in the most desirable of conditions. Something is wrong here; the design and conventions of toilets do not match the way that toilets are used. If people want to hover, maybe we should let them hover. Would adding bars to stalls help people hover? And would that, in turn, make people happier? Maybe we can make toilets fit a wider range of people. Men have the luxury of calmly standing while urinating, whereas women have to either hover or bear touching the seat. Could toilets be designed in some way that matched the female anatomy? Clara Greed (Greed, 2003) might give us ideas. More generally, can we design healthful toilets that still align with our cultural expectations? Alexander Kira (Kira, 1976) has ideas on that. The insistence on hovering over a public toilet can also be seen as a silly obsession with cleanliness. Sitting on the public toilet is probably perfectly safe, and hovering is known to have undesirable health outcomes, like taking longer to pee (Moore & al, 1991). Can we just get over our concern for such cleanliness? As an aside, we should consider squatting. Among other benefits, it might make peeing faster. (Amjadi & al, 2006; Rane & Corstiaans, 2008) On the other hand, it might not. (Unsal & Cimentepe, 2004) Keeping toilets clean. Without changing our toilets, maybe we can keep them from getting dirty or from seeming dirty. Knowing that dirty toilets promote hovering and, in turn, dirtier toilets, we can schedule bathroom cleanings more efficiently. Rather than cleaning bathrooms once a day or waiting until they get messy, we could quickly tidy them up every hour or so; wipe the toilets and the sinks, pick trash up from the ground, and flush any toilets that haven’t been flushed. This may stop toilets from getting particularly dirty, allowing toilets to stay reasonably clean throughout the day without major cleaning. We can also install signs in the bathroom that encourage people to clean up minor messes. When I was in my senior year of college, the cleanliness of my dorm’s bathrooms became a topic of epic controversy. Around that time, I observed a couple signs that requested that men avoid getting urine on the toilet seats and that they wipe the toilet in case they did get urine on the toilet. Here’s a notice phrased in a way that is somewhat hostile towards males; it might be more effective if they requested that less unpleasant unsanitary conditions be avoided. Based on the results from the present study, I suspect that the prevention of minor messes that people don’t complain about would prevent the major messes that people complain about. There was one sign in my dorm that made this sort of request. Making public toilets more like private toilets. If public and private toilets really encourage the use of different postures, we could try making public toilets feel more private. Here are some ideas based on my hypothesized reasons for this hypothesized effect. Public toilets might encourage people to follow social norms more strongly because people in the bathroom can hear each other, smell each other and see each other’s feet. If stalls were made more enclosed, people might be less concerned about the social norms. People might trust the cleanliness of public toilets more because people aren’t shamed when they make a mess. If we station an attendant at the bathroom, people might feel more ashamed of making a mess, and people might thus trust that people aren’t being too messy. Different people use toilets differently. Ignoring the reasons why people choose posture, we still see wide range in choice of posture for toilet-use. The various formal studies suggest that:
  • at least half of British and American women usually hover in public toilets.
  • American males usually sit or stand.
  • Chinese people often squat on sitting toilets, with their feet on the toilet seat.
The anecdotes and toilet use directions tell us about some other postures, like standing for females, and show us the varied complex posture decision processes that people use. I’ve discussed how different sexes choose different postures, but loads of other personal characteristics might affect the posture that makes sense. For example, height matters (Cohen, 2009). Talk about toilets. People don’t talk about toilets, so it’s easy to think that everyone uses them the same way you do. At a more fundamental level, this may explain many of the problems with them: People don’t think much about toilet design in general, and when they do think about toilets, they don’t think about how different people use toilets differently. The use of toilets is about as varied and complicated as anything else, but social norms discourage us from discussing this complexity. I think we’ll get somewhere if we make the discussion of toilets seem less weird.


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